Roger Scruton: can high culture be a substitute for religion?

Last month I interviewed the philosopher Roger Scruton - the interview is on YouTube, above. If you want to download it as an MP3 just copy the URL and take it here.

The interview was inspired by this interesting article which Roger wrote for Aeon Magazine, in which he warned that modern culture was being submerged under a sea of fake emotions, fake culture and fake intellectuals. I read his book Modern Culture, and became interested in his idea of how high culture took the place of Christianity in the last two hundred years as an ethical guide and educator of our emotions.

Scruton suggests that, during the Enlightenment, as religion started to lose its central place in our society, art and literature took its place. They 'ceased to be recreations, and became studies, devoted, as divinity had been devoted, to the nurturing and refining of the soul’. High culture gives us objects of beauty, the sublime contemplation of which lifts our souls from the transient and gives us intimations of the eternal. It gives our lives a sense of meaning (even if that meaning is tragic): ‘Our lives are transfigured in art, and redeemed of their arbitrariness, their contingency and littleness’. High culture transforms our raw emotions, particularly our feelings about love and death, giving what could be savage and destructive emotions a shape, a meaning, and a place in communal life.

Scruton also believes that high culture acts as a sort of cult. He follows Nietzsche in suggesting the root of culture is in cult, not just etymologically but psychologically. It provides an alternative sort of community for a society that has “out-lived its gods”. He writes:

A high culture is a tradition, in which objects made for aesthetic contemplation renew through their allusive power the experience of membership. Religion may wither and festivals decline without destroying high culture, which creates its own ‘imagined community’, and which offers, through the aesthetic experience, a ‘rite of passage’.

I wish someone had told me, as I sat in an Oxford tutorial picking over Virginia Woolf, that I was going through a cultic rite of passage. I would have felt a lot more heroic.



The problem, as Scruton and other cultural conservatives like Allan Bloom see it, is that at some point - probably around the 1960s - high culture lost its cultural authority, and instead our societies became submerged in a sea of crude barbarism (rock and roll, TV, Hollywood etc) which totally lacked the ability to educate our emotions and shape them to their highest form. Instead, the rise of popular culture has meant a 60-year rush to the lowest common denominator of emotion, intelligence and even audio frequency, culminating in the zombie sub-woofer of Skrillex or the face-stomping brutality of David Guetta (Scruton doesn’t exactly put it like that, but that’s pretty much what he means).

When we try to face the serious things in life (love, death), we either do so through a sort of violent fantasy that is really a form of wish fulfillment, in porn or war-porn, in which there is little education of the emotions. Or we create highly sentimental or kitsch art in which the higher emotions are ‘faked'.

Meanwhile, a generation of ‘fake intellectuals’ have undone high culture from the inside, by subverting traditional ideas of beauty, truth and justice and putting in their place a sort of irresponsible and ultimately meaningless wordplay that appeals to a certain sort of pretentious undergraduate (Scruton is no fan of post-1968 French intellectuals like Deleuze, Lacan and Derrida, as we discuss).

I suggest to him in our interview that things aren’t perhaps as bad as all that - the most popular commercial radio station in the UK is not Technobadger FM (despite my constant promotion of it) but Classics FM. And the modernist literature once confined to a small elite is now widely read at schools and universities. High culture has, if anything, become the province of the masses. But I just want, quickly, to explore his idea that high culture could be some kind of replacement for Christianity.

Why high culture is no substitute for religion



There are several problems with this idea, as I put to him in the interview. Firstly, it’s elitist. The best religions, including Christianity, work partly because they are inclusive both to the intellectuals and to the masses. They have esoteric philosophical ideas for the chin-strokers, and rousingly emotive hymns, rituals and festivals for the masses. The reason Stoicism or Neo-Platonism never took off in the Roman Empire was because they only offered theories for the elite, and nothing meatier and more emotional for the masses. So high culture fails to include the poorly educated, while Jesus was sublimely inclusive, hanging out with fishermen, prostitutes, tax collectors, shepherds and other social outcasts. What would Jesus make of Glyndebourne?

Secondly, as Scruton himself notes, in aesthetics, the focus is on the signifer (the work of art) rather than the signified (God, nature, the cosmos etc). So when Oscar Wilde says he admires the ritual of Catholicism, what he really means is he digs the incense, the costumes, the chanting, the candles. Religion becomes reduced to an aesthetic display, a show, a spectacle.

Thirdly, related to the last point, in high culture, the priest or prophet figure becomes replaced by the artist. We start to see, from the Enlightenment on, a profane veneration of the artist as sacred prophet - we start to get scenes of German women kneeling at the feet of The Master, Friedrich Wagner. The problem with this is your average artist is a very different kettle of fish to a priest. Artists may be inspired geniuses, but they are also often very bad human beings, who exploit everyone around them for the sake of their art. So it’s a pretty poor exchange to swap priests for artists. You end up with the worship of rock stars and thousands of groupies offering their bodies up for a night with their God. Priests may not be as glamorous or as good at publicity as rock stars, but the best of them are quietly devoted to the service of others rather than the glorification of self.

Fourthly, in high culture there is no necessary connection to good works, to charity, to washing the feet of your fellow humans. Instead, the goal is the aesthete’s delicious enjoyment of their own sentiments. It’s ultimately a rather subjective and selfish form of self-gratification, compared to the selfless humanitarian work that religion seems to inspire in some people (though clearly good works without a bit of selfish culture can be quite philistine - as Mathew Arnold argued in Culture and Anarchy. There's a delicate balance between devotion to others and the cultivation of the self).

Finally, I don’t think the ‘imagined community’ of high culture is any substitute for the actual community of a church, an umaah or sangha. When you read, you read alone. When you go to a concert, you go alone or with a friend, you sit next to strangers, and you leave as strangers. Only in an ecstasy-fueled rave is there any sort of community to rival the close and loving community of genuine religious communities (and that only lasts three hours or so, while you’re up. Then you come down and creep into bed for two days and never see your new best mates again).

The lessons of Christianity for the Skeptic / atheist movement

I think it’s useful to think of these things with respect to atheism / skepticism too, particularly as atheists set up churches and imagine themselves as secular religions. I’m all for creating closer ethical communities, with or without God. But the fledgling 'church of atheism' has a long way to go. Firstly, we've noted that religion acts as an educator of the emotions. This is not the case with Skepticism. While Skeptics may pride themselves on being a ‘cognitive elite’, they often seem quite an emotionally-challenged community. This is particularly obvious in the Skeptic movement’s favourite art. Skeptics adore superhero, sci-fi and fantasy works, which typically glorify power and technical prowess, without any deep understanding of love, tragedy or mortality. That’s not always true (Lord of the Rings has a decent sense of tragedy) but it’s mainly true. Skeptic science may be rich, but the artistic culture beloved of Skepticism is emotionally flat and adolescent.

Secondly, Skeptic or atheist culture does not seem to me to be that inclusive. The tribe defines itself as the ‘cognitive elite’, as a tribe of ‘Brights’ or ‘geeks’. It is mainly a tribe of university-educated middle-class white males. One of the things that Christianity has which atheism has yet to have is, as Rowan Williams put it eloquently in his debate with Richard Dawkins last month, a "refusal to ignore those who are at the edge of their society". Christianity, inspired by the example of the outcast Jesus and his outcast tribe, has a strong sense of mission to help the marginalised, the weak and the vulnerable. Of course one doesn’t have to be a Christian to have such a mission (think of George Orwell). But it seems to help. The Skeptic / atheist movement by contrast seems often to be a celebration of the congregation's smartness compared to the ignorant masses.

A love for the weak and the marginalised may be the key to Christianity's emotional education. I’m not sure that atheist / Skeptic communities allow people to share their own weakness and vulnerability, in a way that the best religious communities do, from Alpha to L'Arche to Alcoholics Anonymous. Religions ‘educate our emotions’ partly by allowing us to open up to one another and admit our shameful sense of weakness and vulnerability. Skeptics, by contrast, often seem to be in rigid suits of protective emotional armour, and to be far more comfortable with impersonal subjects like astronomy or IT. If they do express emotions, it's either a geeky love of sci-fi / fantasy or highly vindictive attacks on their enemies.

This lack of emotional availability and vulnerability extends to the leaders of the Skeptic / atheist movement. Two comedians have set up an ‘atheist church’ in Islington. Well and good. But are they available to their congregation throughout the week, night and day, to offer them support? Alain de Botton says he wants to start up a Religion for Atheists. Fine and dandy. But I’ve given several classes at the School of Life, and I’ve never once seen him there. By contrast, Nicky Gumbel - who set up the Alpha Course - is at his church leading the course every single Wednesday, and serves his church every other day of the week too. He devotes the same amount of relentless energy serving his church as Alain de Botton does to pursuing book sales. I’m not criticising Alain for that - I am the same, only lazier and less successful. I’m just saying, that’s the difference between a writer and a priest, and between culture and religion.


In other news this week:

Here is a wonderful essay from Aeon by the philosopher Stephen Asma, on our emotional similarity with other mammals.

How to get more girls into science subjects at university? Perhaps by taking Psychology A-Level more seriously - girls make up 70% of the students for that subject, and typically get twice as good results as boys.

The LSE in London has a new exhibition looking at the relationship between fiction and philosophy.

A shocking piece in the New York Times on young people getting addicted to Adderall through ADHD prescriptions.

A piece from the BPS Digest warning that CBT self-help books might do more harm than good for some depressed people prone to rumination, if they just encourage more rumination.

Birkbeck is home to a wonderful interdisciplinary project on dreams and dreaming. Listen to the talks at a recent seminar here, including Robin Carhart-Harris (yes, the Imperial investigator into magic mushrooms and ecstasy, also known as The Man With The Best Job In London) talking about the neuroscience of dreaming.

And finally, this coming Tuesday I'm leading another evening session in the Philosophy For Life course at Queen Mary, in the Lock-Keeper's Cottage from 6pm. This Tuesday we're discussing the Stoics. It's going to be great - come along.It's free and open to everyone. Here is a photo from this Tuesday's session.

See you next week,